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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

Perils of the Sea

Elsewhere I have made some comments on the dangers and discomforts of travel by sea during the Nineteenth Century. Indeed, from a modern perspective, it seems almost incomprehensible that ordinary citizens would have taken such risks to get from one place to another. The fastest voyage on record from New York to San Francisco by way of the Horn was 89 days and 8 hours, by the clipper Flying Cloud. Most sailing ships required about three and a half months. Steamers were faster, but they did not entirely replace sailing ships until early in the Twentieth Century. Both classes of vessels had their peculiar dangers. Common to both was the problem that ships were usually out of contact with the rest of humanity for weeks at a time. Wireless was not yet invented. There was no way to call for help.

I have been reading a remarkable book titled The Annals of San Francisco, published in 1855. It is almost a day by day account of the history of that place from Sir Frances Drake until 1854. There are hundreds of fascinating details about what it was like to live in that time and place. Shipping was vital to the city’s existence, and so the authors pay it great attention. Among some facts listed in passing are the number of steamships lost. The first of these was the Independence, wrecked on February 16, 1853, with two hundred casualties. That occurred in Nicaragua, so news did not reach San Francisco until weeks later. The Tennessee ran aground at what is now called Tennessee Beach, north of the city, on March 6, 1853. She carried six hundred passengers plus crew and cargo, all of which were saved. A few years ago, waves uncovered the ship’s boilers from under the sand. As far as I know they are still there.

Then on April 9, 1853 the S.S. Lewis was wrecked in the bay. Thus, three large steamers were lost in a space of a little over two months. The Annals goes on to list eleven steamships lost between 1851 and 1853! That was by no means the end of it, since there were many more wrecks to come.

Those were just the steamships. There were windjammers lost as well, but not listed in the book. It does mention the loss of twenty three ships just within the bay, between 1850 and 1852. This was not even counting the number of ships burned or wrecked while lying at anchor!

Reading this history, I am struck with awe at the courage and persistence of our ancestors. They considered travel by ship to be safer and more comfortable than by wagon, if they wanted to go west. Adding to the hazards of wrecks and fires were bad food, unsanitary conditions and scurvy, as well as plague and fever. Today we are horrified by plane crashes and train wrecks. Would we be eager to use up frequent flyer miles if we were forced to witness a disaster a month?

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